The M Night Shyamalan interview | 'Ramifications of pandemic coincide with the minimalistic way I like to tell my stories'
M Night Shyamalan says the pandemic protocols have only facilitated the way he likes to tell stories like Servant Season 2 on Apple TV+ — singular setting, limited cast, and deliberate quietness.
Talking to M Night Shyamalan over a video call is both exciting and uneasy, particularly if you have seen his Apple TV+ show Servant. It revolves around a Philadelphia couple confined to their home where — no points for guessing — supernatural/psychological forces haunt them.
At one point during the interview, Shyamalan mentions how glad he is to enjoy a peak into our homes, thanks to social distancing and mobility restrictions due to coronavirus. "Usually, I'm sitting in a room. And you guys come one by one, and talk to me. But now, I can peep into your homes. Oh is that your bedroom? How cool is that shelf," he says, as if he is on a virtual recce to set his next horror drama in. "That looks like a beautiful room to tell a scary story," I hear him say.
Below are edited excerpts from an interaction with the American filmmaker on season 2 of Servant, how the lockdown changed the way he approached the new instalment, and why he believes the devil (and the spirits, nannies, reborn dolls, et al) is in the details.
Rupert Grint (an actor in Servant) told me when he returned to the set for Season 2 after the lockdown, he had just become a father. And having a baby is not the best headspace to go into a show that thrives on doll horror. How did the pandemic and lockdown change your approach to directing Season 2?
Firstly, it was very fortunate that this company could shoot two shows with safety protocol in place during the pandemic. We shot Servant in the safest way possible. In fact, we were one of the first ones to go back on set, and everyone was asking us how we did it and how we were so successful. But the scale and style of shooting was very much how I like to make movies. We didn't have cars blowing up. With isolated location and small cast, Servant is very much like a play. It was something we could control and contain.
The three to four months before the shoot that I couldn't do anything, it was very rewarding. My time was not competing with anything else. I'm considering imposing this pause on me every year where I just stop and do nothing.
The lockdown felt very calm. I'm sure you'll see that quietness in the coming projects of mine.
You were holed up in a room like the rest of us for most part of the year. How did that change the way you used the motif of space, since it is very crucial to Servant because of the singular setting?
The ramifications of the pandemic ended up coinciding with the style of storytelling I like very much. I like it to be super contained. I don't lean towards special effects.
The awe-inspiring extravagant stuff I like watching is not how I tell stories. The lockdown reminded me of minimalism.
We moved very slowly in the first season of Servant. And it turned out to be the stickiest show for Apple — if you watch the pilot, you end up watching the entire show. We'd thought it'd be the other way round because of the pace. But when you use less elements, each of it is appreciated. When you keep a glass on the table, it means something. When you hear the door closing in the corner, it stands for something. We spend a lot of time on that footstep. What does the floor on the attic sound like? What does the wind coming in from the window mean? These are very important for us. As all the elements went away in our lives this year, and we embraced a minimalistic way of life. That's what I've tried to maintain in Season 2.
How did the idea of Servant come to you?
This was a random idea that came to me several years ago. A producer came to Philadelphia, and asked to have lunch with me. As I discussed my style of storytelling with him, he said he may have the idea of a show for me. He sent us the pilot. It was different than what the show turned out to be. But at the centre was the story of a woman who lost her child and then kept a doll of that child pretending it was still alive. I was so moved by this concept of not being able to mourn. I thought it was super powerful. What if we never leave that house, and they continue pretending? I really wanted to know where that story went.
How does Servant differ from your movies in terms of delivering tension and nuance to the viewers?
Well, the format is obviously long-form. It's character-driven. In movies, the vertical line, the plot, is the most important thing. You can do as much character development you want but you have to keep that vertical line moving. So there's pressure to establish characters as fast as possible, and develop them only till the boat doesn't hit the iceberg and sink. You've to quickly put aliens on earth and keep it going. But in this long format, there's a lot of room for character development. That's why the audience keeps coming back because they feel attached to the characters. And the half-hour (episodic) thriller is a very unusual format. I've been thinking more in terms of how to stage this in a 30-minute sequence. That's changed the way how I think about rhythms, even in my movies.
Some consider Servant as a twisted take on Mary Poppins. How much truth is there to that idea?
Yes, that's how Tony (Basgallop, creator) thought of Servant initially. He pitched it as a very dark version of Mary Poppins. In the initial draft, there was a lot of fantasy. We still maintain that idea: is the nanny good, is she bad? Is it supernatural or psychological? I think when you bring someone to your home as a mother-like to your child, the idea is fraught with all the possibilities that can go wrong. The idea of a nanny's motivations really interested me to tell this story.
How many seasons have you planned for Servant?
Initially, I thought six seasons — not too long, not too short. That was my initial deal with Apple. But when the pandemic hit, I worked out the whole show in my mind. And it came out to be 40 episodes, so four seasons. The story itself told me what it wanted to be. I'm completely involved in the show, from the music to choosing the other directors. To be able to be as involved for six seasons... I didn't know if I could commit to that. So I told Apple that if people are still interested in watching, I'd like to do this show for four seasons.
How has the experience of working with a streaming platform been for you? Has that been a good change?
It's very strange. I don't know if you believe in the theory that when you think of something specific, it manifests for you. I subscribe to that. We put out an energy, and that energy comes back to us in some form. Most of us think of life as something random, something blurry. But if you think of something specific, it can manifest itself. When I was asked what kind of streaming debut I'd like, I'd said I'd love to start someone's platform. I'd love to define a place by their creative integrity, work with a partner that has already defined itself with creative integrity, someone like Apple. If Apple makes a show, I'd love to collaborate. I said this years ago, and here we are! When the idea of the show came, we took it to several places and eventually, Apple came in. I wanted us to grow together. I'd rather a high standard for a small audience, and then we expand together.
Servant Season 2 will stream on Apple TV+ from 15 January.
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